Key Dems' Ethical Clouds Could Haunt Pelosi

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Brendan Hoffman / Getty

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi speaks at a news conference in Washington, DC.

One of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's favorite boasts is that she "cleaned out the swamp of Washington," a none too subtle swipe at what she calls the G.O.P.'s "culture of corruption" as evidenced by imprisoned former Rep. Duke Cunningham, disgraced Republican lobbyist Jack Abramoff or the coterie of members he tainted, including Rep. Bob Ney who is also in prison and former Majority Leader Tom DeLay, who is still fighting charges that he violated Texas campaign finance laws. Unfortunately for Pelosi, the Democrats' record is far from clean, and her bold words could well come back to haunt her and her party in next year's midterm elections.

According to Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, a congressional watchdog group, 15 lawmakers are currently under investigation for allegedly violating ethical standards. Of those four are Republicans and 11 are Democrats. That doesn't even include former Louisiana Rep. William Jefferson, who was recently found guilty of 11 of 16 charges of corruption. But just as not all members of congress are truly equal in the power they wield, not all members under an ethical cloud pose the same threat for Pelosi. In the House Democratic caucus, there are three that could be the greatest embarrassment for the House Speaker: Ways & Means Committee Chairman Charlie Rangel of New York, Appropriations Defense Subcommittee Chairman Jack Murtha and Rep. Pete Visclosky.

"These are powerful people in the power structure in the House," says Jim Thurber, head of American University's Institute for Congressional and Presidential Studies. "They are also Pelosi's friends. If she does not let the Ethics committee do objective and aggressive work she undermines her political capital and the integrity of the ethics review. She leaves an opening, a wedge issue, for the Republicans in 2010."

Over the last year, Rangel has been linked by New York papers to an array of questionable acts, from renting four rent stabilized apartments in New York from a prominent real estate developer and using congressional letterhead to raise funds for the Charles B. Rangel Center for Public Service at the City College of New York, to failing to report on financial disclosure forms $75,000 in income from a Dominican Republican rental villa, a transgression he has admitted was a mistake — and for allegedly protecting a tax loop hole for an oil company that paid $1 million to the Rangel Center. Rangel has for the most part vigorously denied any wrongdoing; in September of last year, he invited the Ethic Committee to investigate him. That investigation was due to be finished by the end the year but it has dragged on with Rangel spending more than $1 million to defend himself this far.

Murtha and Visclosky have both been linked to the lobbying firm PMA, which was twice raided by federal agents in recent months. Over the last decade firms that PMA helped get hundreds of millions of dollars worth of earmarked projects - pet projects inserted into the appropriations process by lawmakers — have given Murtha and Visclosky more than $3.5 million in campaign contributions. Both members deny any wrongdoing. Thus far Murtha has avoided any official charges. But, Visclosky was forced to resign his chairmanship of the Energy and Water Appropriations Subcommittee after he was subpoenaed in relation to the PMA investigation.

Pelosi's silence on Visclosky has been deafening considering how quickly she moved to strip committee memberships from the last member of her brood to become the target of a federal investigation, former congressman Jefferson. Rep. Anna Eschoo, a California Democrat and one of Pelosi's closest friends on the Hill, argues that the evidence that the feds found in Jefferson's house — $90,000 in cash stuffed in a freezer - was so damning, "the situation was completely different and Nancy took a courageous stand." Eschoo argues the case is much less clear-cut with the current investigations and that loyalty is the most highly valued currency on the Hill. "Everyone wants to give them the chance to prove their innocence," she says.

But above all it's Murtha, whom Pelosi unsuccessfully supported for Majority Leader over Steny Hoyer when she became speaker in 2007, who could cause the most damage for speaker. The caucus overruled her, picking Hoyer, but Pelosi remains close to Murtha. The long-serving House member chaired Pelosi's first campaign for a leadership position and he's a respected Vietnam veteran who helped turn public opinion when he came out against the war in Iraq. Still, "it's possible to be loyal to a fault," says Hoyer. "I think Nancy believes loyalty is a very, very important trait not only to those who display loyalty but to whom you owe. That can be a virtue but it also can be — I'm one who admires loyalty."

For the moment, Pelosi has an excuse for withholding judgment — she is waiting for the Ethics Committee to finish its work and for the federal investigations to play out. But there's a danger in being behind the news. "Indictments would force her hand and be damaging to Democrats," says Thomas Mann, a congressional expert at the Brookings Institution. There is, after all, a big difference between the indictment of a sitting chairman of a committee and a rank-and-file member who was stripped of his power at the first hint of wrongdoing.

After all, public opinion of Congress has only just started to rebound, to 31% in February up from an all time low of 18% in May 2008, according to Gallup polls. "If the trio is indicted, the Democrats will lose the ethics edge they were starting to build amid recent Republican scandals," says Donald Kettl, dean of the University of Maryland's School of Public Policy. "The Democrats in the House have a substantial majority, but it would be dangerous to take that for granted going into the 2010 midterms elections. President Obama's sagging poll numbers and the problems with health reform already show their vulnerability. They wouldn't want to hand the Republicans a gift."